Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
Untitled Document

A triumph of virility and significance

by Moore Parker

Janáček: Kat'a Kabanova
Salzburg Festival
13 August 2022

Corinne Winters (Kát’a), David Butt Philip (Boris), Ensemble

Janáček`s international position as a Titan in operatic literature is further promoted by this latest Salzburg contribution, which indeed competes with the Festival’s legendary 2001 Jenufa.

In keeping with tradition here, a triumph results from a well-selected mélange of artists in all capacities who catalyse into an event of extraordinary virility and significance. And indeed, a triumph this is. 

Barrie Kosky and his team have here pared down the elements in the plot to a stark and neutral essence devoid of specific period or place. The rugged, unrelenting stone backdrop of the Felsenreitschule (here with sealed-off arcades) serves ideally, as the director says for the “claustrophobic, threatening element in mind that is inherent in the piece”. 

The sounds of birds singing, crickets chirping, church bells, and ultimately a thunder storm underpin the unfolding action - with staging by Rufus Didwiszus, costumes by Victoria Behr, and lighting by Frank Evin. 

Some 400 individuals, many hooded, and with the non-vocalists’ faces concealed, serve as a mobile set as well as backdrop and wings - forming groups from which the solo protagonists enter and retreat in a concept essentially devoid of props or furnishings. 

A huge bank of lights is suspended centre stage to great effect, while a tangential floor-level strip along the expanse of the stone wall lends a sense of distance to the human mass as required for the romantic and more intimate moments.

Kosky thus fills the infamously challenging venue (with it’s seemingly-unending expanse) with a malleable (yet impenetrable) human (yet inhuman) element from which the protagonists stem, but from which they too are isolated throughout. Following Kát’a’s suicide the setting touches an ironic nerve when Kabanicha thanks those present for their “help” as the final utterance of the evening. A desolate message of universal dispensation.

The characters seem rigidly set in their moulds - doomed in one way or another, without scope for growth or refuge. The physical demands are, at times, significant - with the younger leads often running in all directions as if futile attempt to break their bounds.

In the title role, Corinne Winters (who impressed as Halka in Theater an der Wien’s 2019 production)  seals Kát’a’s hopeless mental state and situation from her first entry - her pain only relieved in moments of recollection in her account to Varvara, and with a single great moment of rebellion after her confession when she grabs Kabanicha’s cane and flails desperately in all directions. Vocally, Winters sails through Janáček`s lines with aplomb, enjoying ample elasticity in range, and the stamina required for the testing direction. 

Jaroslav Březina’s Tichon is ideally set, as an unappealing antihero evidently unable to cut the umbilical cord and truly bind with his Kát’a. Her demise presents him an ultimate mirror to reflect upon his impotence.

As the hectoring mother, Evelyn Herlitzius fails to eclipse memories of more naturally dominating Kabanichas (Deborah Polaski and Jane Henschel spring to mind), but her adequately-strident shrieks and swinging silver-topped cane left no doubt as to her authority in the family.

Well-turned, the “Domina” scene with Jens Larsen (as the otherwise bullying Dikój) in underpants grovelling like a dog on all fours for abuse, while Kabanicha goads him with a Frankfurter before dousing him with the dregs of his hip flask! 
Jarmila Balážová is an outstanding Varvara, youthfully slinky and contrasting wonderfully with Kát’a in her frivolous - yet wily effervescence, while filling her vocal lines with an appealing soprano of unanticipated depth of timbre.

David Butt Philip’s Boris was well-scaled to his Kát’a - credible in his sincere devotion, and filling the auditorium with an ample, open-throated tenor which ideally suited the part.

Likewise, Benjamin Hulett’s Váňa was well matched to Balážová in spirit, lifting the mood in their light-hearted moments and passionate spree.    

Fine supports in Michael Mofidian (Kuligin), Nicole Chirka (Glaša) and Ann-Katrin Niemczyk (Fekluša).

Pristine work too from the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, as indeed from the Wiener Philharmoniker under Jakub Hrůša, here making his Salzburg Festival debut. Among his wide-ranging achievements, he has established a reputation as a Janáček specialist. Hrůša is the inaugural recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Prize, and recently led the new Vienna State Opera production of The Makropolous Affair to great acclaim.
This Salzburg evening testified to his affinity with his compatriot`s oeuvre, in a poetic yet vital reading commensurate with the stellar showing on stage.  

As Kát’a’s soaked dress is pulled from the Volga, Kabanicha gleefully uses her cane in a final gesture of violence to rip it from her mourning son’s hands. Curtain!

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © SF / Monika Rittershaus
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